Thursday, August 28, 2008

Money -- and beyond 4th grade math

When I was in school, I remember doing worksheets that had pictures of coins. This was how the educators thought we should learn about money. I think my father had a better idea. He talked to me about money, gave me money, and told me what it was worth. A penny was a piece of bubble gum, and a dime was a can of Coke. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, the price of a Coke went up to 15 cents. I didn't mind the worksheets though. Since I knew how to count money, they were an easy A.

When my oldest was six years old, we were having a garage sale. I thought this would be a great time for her to learn to count money. Wrong. She already knew how to count money. I had never spent any time teaching her. She had learned it through living in a world that uses money.

When my children were around 7, 10, and 13, they decided they wanted an allowance. My husband and I told them they could present us with their argument at a meeting that would be held in a couple of days, so they could prepare. It was a very impressive presentation, which included a detailed plan about payments, savings, and spending.

Each child would receive a weekly allowance equaling one dollar per year of the child's age. For example, the seven-year-old would get $7 a week, and so on. Half of the allowance would be theirs to spend on whatever they wanted, and half of it would be put into a savings account to save for big-ticket items that would be discussed with us parents before purchasing. They agreed that they would buy everything they "wanted," and we parents would continue buying things they "needed." For example, each child needed a pair of play shoes and a pair of dress shoes. If they wanted more shoes, they would be responsible for purchasing them.

This plan worked quite well, and our children gained valuable experience in managing money. There were times they made unwise purchasing decisions. They got sad, regretted the purchase, and talked about not making that mistake again. Making mistakes is a great learning tool.

When my children were preteens, I would think out loud about purchasing decisions. It sounds like a typical word problem when written in a blog, but I used to ask questions like this all the time.
If I have $25, and I need to save $10 for buying something at the grocery store, how much can we spend on lunch?
And my younger daughter started "doing the math" when we ate out. She would look at a menu and figure out the individual price of something. If an order of six mozzarella sticks was $3, she'd say, "These mozzarella sticks cost 50 cents each."

There are so many opportunities for children to learn about money in the real world, an attentive parent doesn't need to buy a book to teach it. Just start talking to your children about your daily purchases and give them the opportunity to buy things with their own money. They will learn so much more than any worksheet could teach.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Math is fun in fourth grade!

As I confessed yesterday, I was worried about my ability to teach math to my kids when we first decided to unschool, because I always thought I was "bad" at math. Now that my children are 15, 18, and 20 and mathematically literate, I can say that my worries were unfounded. Now I find it somewhat funny and sad that a lot of people think that unschooling is great, but they still need a math curriculum or a math textbook.

A textbook or computer program makes sense for algebra, trig, or calculus. I can sort of buy it in junior high -- like a security blanket, okay. I'm not going to give anyone a hard time about having a security blanket. But I think the best way to use a math text in junior high is for mom or dad to read it, and if you find something where you feel your child is really deficient, go ahead and do that section of the book if it will help you sleep at night or stand up to the inlaws. But remember that the best way to kill a love of learning a subject is to make someone do drills over and over and over again, even though they know how to do it.

What really surprises me about math texts is when someone says they bought one for a child in the elementary grades. There is nothing taught in elementary math that cannot be learned through life. At best, a math book is waste of money. At worst, it's a surefire way to kill a child's desire to learn math. Oh, they will still learn it, but they are more likely to see it as "hard," instead of a part of daily living.

I just happen to have a fourth-grade math curriculum here. I bought it because my son requested it eight years ago.

The first eight weeks -- yes, eight weeks -- all start with the word, "review." So, there is nothing new for eight weeks. We will be reviewing everything we've already learned: addition, subtraction, skip counting, multiplication, division, telling time, and roman numerals. My favorite here is telling time. Even if we assume that no one uses addition, subtraction, etc, in their daily lives, do we really need to spend two weeks reviewing how to tell time? But let's move on ... although weeks nine and ten don't begin with the word, "review," they are still covering multiplication and roman numerals. The 11th and 12th weeks are a review of weeks one to 10!

I won't bore you with a week-by-week list of the curriculum, because it's ... well, it's boring. The big thing to learn in fourth grade, which finally starts around the 13th week, is measurements and money, including fractions.

So, to learn everything the average fourth graders knows about math, take your kids into the kitchen at least a couple times a week. Make a batch of chocolate chip cookies or brownies. After a couple weeks when they understand how the measurements work, ask them to double the recipe (adding fractions) and triple the recipe (multiplying fractions). Then get online and find a huge recipe and ask them to halve it or reduce it by 2/3 (dividing fractions). You could just cheat and multiply a recipe by three, then ask them to reduce it by 2/3.

Three years ago, my then-12-year-old daughter and I spent the month of November making about seven or eight different cookie recipes. We doubled or tripled most of the recipes, freezing the majority of the cookies. Then in December, when we had company for the holidays, we were able to pull out six or seven different types of cookies each time we had company.

Here is a fun challenge that is totally practical -- try making a batch of cookies using only the 1/4-cup measuring cup. We've done this before when all the other measuring cups were dirty or when we couldn't find the one we needed. It shows your child ...
4 X 1/4 = 1
2 X 1/4 = 1/2
and so on.

You also get into telling time. If you put your cookies in the oven at 10:05, and they are supposed to bake for 8 minutes, what time do you need to check on them?

Of course, you don't have to wait until your child is 9-years-old to do this. You can do it with your six-year-old, and then when the inlaws ask how little Johnny is doing, you can say, "Oh, he's working at the fourth grade level in math."

If you think your kids hate math, try this. Instead of saying, "Kids, time to do your math work!" say, "Kids, let's bake some cookies!" Not only do you wind up with children who know their fractions, you'll also wind up with a steady supply of homemade cookies.

Tomorrow: money, the second half of fourth grade math

Monday, August 25, 2008

This class is boring and hard and ...

I was not one of those children who loved math. Nor did I excel at it. The only two Ds I ever received in my life were in math -- fifth grade and eighth grade. Then seven or eight years ago, I went to a homeschool conference and attended a session on math. Prior to that conference, I always said, "I'm not good at math." That day I realized I was wrong -- I was good at math, but I'd had some unfortunate experiences in math classes as a child.

The teachers of those two classes where I got Ds scared me down to my toes. In fact, my eighth grade math teacher would slap children across the face several times a week. She gave one boy a bloody lip. I sat at the back of the classroom, and I'm normally a front-seat kind of student. I didn't want her to notice I was in the class, but one day she called me up to her desk. I remember her yelling at me, "Why are you shaking?" It didn't seem like a good idea to tell her the truth -- that I was scared of her -- so I just said, "I don't know." I don't remember why she was yelling at me, but I do remember being allowed to go back to my desk.

That was in 1977, and I would like to think that today if a teacher were slapping children almost daily, she would be removed from the classroom immediately. But it doesn't take an experience that dramatic for a child to be turned off by a subject. If kids don't feel safe, how can they learn? And I don't just mean safe from physical harm, but safe from ridicule and embarrassment, as well. Although few teachers would belittle a child for doing poorly, it is not uncommon for other children to make fun of classmates who have problems, whether the problems are academic, social, or physical. That is one reason why school does not work for some children.

And it's an insult to children to say that they should get tough and deal with it. If you had a job where you worried daily that you would be fired, would you be excited about going to work every day? If your co-workers made fun of you, would you be able to concentrate on your job and do your best? Most people would be looking for another job under those circumstances.

When I looked back over my years in math classes, I realized that there was a direct correlation between the teacher and my grade most years. And I don't think it had anything to do with the teacher's teaching or mathematical ability. It had to do with the teacher's personality. I got a 79% in high school algebra. The teacher was the freshman football coach, and he spent every Friday class in the fall talking about the football game. In the spring, he was the freshman basketball coach, and he spent a lot of time talking about the basketball games. And he wasn't talking to the girls in the class -- just the boys. I was bored and felt like he didn't really care about algebra or my learning algebra.

I got a 95% in high school geometry. The teacher was not a coach. He spent every day talking about geometry. He spoke to the boys and girls equally and was a really nice guy. But since I had "bombed" algebra, I refused to take a second year of the subject. When I got to college, however, I did take two semesters of algebra and got an A each semester.

My point here is not to blame teachers for bad grades. I know I earned a C in that high school algebra class because I didn't earn enough points to get a higher grade. And I struggled to get the C. I remember it being very hard. But the struggling and the bad grades in math classes caused me to paint a picture of myself as someone who was not "good" at math. I never thought about how uncomfortable I felt in those classes when the teachers were not talking about math.

There are several reasons why math teachers are not always the best people to teach math. Most of them become math teachers because they love math. That means they were good at it as students. Some people are intuitively mathematical people. One of my children is like that -- can do all sorts of math problems in his head and give you the answer, even though he's never had any formal instruction in math. But he can't explain how he got the answer. Yes, I know, teachers have been educated about how to teach, but if math has always been easy for them, they can't empathize as much with students who struggle. Although there are some good teachers out there, children's teachers change every year in schools. What are the odds that they'll get 12 great math teachers?

A common reason I hear for parents not homeschooling is, "I'm bad at math," and "I couldn't teach my kids math." I had that same fear when I started homeschooling, but I figured that my engineer husband could take care of whatever higher math I couldn't handle, since he uses calculus on a daily basis. But I think a lot of parents would learn the same thing I did -- you are not bad at math. I recently bought a used algebra textbook from Amazon for my youngest in preparation for college. I opened it to the first chapters and realized that it didn't look that hard. Just as I am always telling my children that they can teach themselves most of what they want to learn, I know I could teach myself algebra -- if I wanted to. But motivation is a topic for another day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Not going back to school? Why not?

Today I was reminded of the year that we decided not to send our children back to school. We began homeschooling our children initially, but then in 1997, I went to work full-time as a newspaper reporter, and we sent our children, then ages 4, 7, and 9, to school. The youngest went to preschool, and the two older ones went to the local public school, which was excellent by everyone's definition. But "everyone" hasn't homeschooled.

After three years, I decided that my children's educational well-being was more important than my career as a reporter and editor, and I quit my job so I could bring my children home again. The oldest needed to be homeschooled because she was a perfectionist, always wanting to get the best grade and be in the classes with the "smartest" kids. I was worried she was working herself into early stress-related illnesses. The middle child was a mover-and-shaker kind of learner who didn't work well in a classroom. He needed to touch things, move around, talk, and do things. At the time, I thought the youngest would be okay in school, but when I thought about what that meant, I asked myself, do I just want my child to do okay? No, I want my children to excel -- to have the best possible education. So, they came home.

The youngest had few expectations of what homeschooling would be. The oldest remembered unschooling and knew that she could do whatever she wanted. But the middle child expected textbooks and schedules. I bought the textbooks and told him he could create his own schedule. He worked on the books for two or three weeks, but then moved on to reading Entertainment Weekly. All three children found their passions. The road wasn't straight, and there were a few potholes, but now that my children are moving on to other learning adventures, such as college, they are glad they were unschooled.

So, if your family is not going back to school this fall, why not?